Deer season, waterfowl season, the seasons when fat big bass and crappie move to the banks, elk bugling season, migration seasons; hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers all have their favorite times of year.
But, especially this year, the weeks ahead mark the season for watching the actions in the first session of Oklahoma’s 57th Legislature.
Do you have your reading glasses polished up?
Do you have the website oklegislature.gov bookmarked on your laptop and mobile devices?
Sounds exciting doesn’t it?
I’m hazarding a guess that not nearly enough of those who enjoy Oklahoma’s great outdoors are focused on the Legislature.
After an initial onslaught of 36 bills aimed specifically at wildlife, public lands and hunting and fishing license fees — most of which are actions typically left to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Conservation Commission — the tally after early legislative deadlines remains 18 bound for full House or Senate floor consideration or to committee consideration in the chamber opposite of their origin.
People should note that, while the list is cut in half, bills go “dormant,” which means not all of them are gone for good. There’s always another session to bring them back to life.
Bills that have already passed committees dedicated to wildlife and agriculture issues do things like putting a cap on the amount of available public lands, limiting the ability of game wardens to address trespassers or investigate gunfire, mandating the wildlife department do quarterly population studies of all game animals (instead of one or two for select species), giving both resident and non-resident landowners cheaper hunting and fishing licenses, and putting Panhandle landowners in charge of determining harvest quotas for antelope.
That last one crosses a line likely contrary to state statutes. Landowners who charge hunters access to their property are the last ones who should be in charge of deciding how many antelope should be hunted. Let’s stick with the agency mandated to follow sound wildlife biology when it comes to harvest quotas, not landowners who might be tempted to make more bucks (pardon the pun).
None of these measures incorporate the science-based reasoning or polling of those who participate in our user-based fee system by purchasing the hunting and fishing licenses that fund the wildlife department — which receives zero state tax dollars.
That point about tax dollars is important because the Legislature has the authority to do things that would cut funding to the department, like making licenses cheaper, but it can’t give tax dollars to the department to carry out added demands like doing dozens more population surveys annually or, as another bill demands, creating a wildlife conservation training program that would be mandatory for people convicted of serious wildlife crimes.
Any extra demands come out of hunting and fishing license dollars already committed to other tasks that serve hunters and anglers and that help private landowners with habitat improvement projects.
Challenging Wildlife Department Director J.D. Strong in a committee session this week, a legislator panned Strong’s assertion that most regulations are based in science by raising the example of an old regulation that prohibited the hunting of piebald deer (deer with all-white or large patches of white fur) without permission from the department director.
In fact, that rule was purely political because some people see white-furred deer as something unique that should be protected, instead of a deer with one genetic anomaly that is otherwise no different than any other deer.
The desire to protect those deer is an understandable sentiment. Those are some pretty cool looking animals. Still, biologically speaking, taking one doesn’t harm the population or necessarily erase those genes from the gene pool.
What resulted was confusion and people getting fined who weren’t aware of the oddball rule, including a legislator who was a member of the House wildlife committee and shot a white-faced doe.
The legislator was way off base with the challenge because that rule was not one created by the wildlife department. It was created by the Legislature and later repealed by that same body — a prime example of how well-meaning legislators inject politics into wildlife management, often with unintended consequences.
That it was brought up as a challenge to the department also illustrates that many legislators — even those on the wildlife committee — often are not fully aware of what the department does, why it does what it does, how it is funded and how programs serve those of us who do the hunting, the fishing and the paying.
If you purchase a hunting or fishing license or wildlife conservation passport, you’ll want to do some scouting at oklegislature.gov this legislative season.
To see a boiled-down list and summary of the bills, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation regularly updates a “legislative tracker” with the status of each bill at wildlifedepartment.com.